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Museum group calls for ouster of Detroit Institute of Arts director

An anonymous group claiming to represent current and former Detroit Institute of Arts employees called on Monday for the ouster of director Salvador Salort-Pons, saying he has created a “hostile and chaotic work culture” that particularly despises black and Latino employees.

The public demand, broadcast via Twitter, landed days after conflict of interest accusations involving the loan of an El Greco painting currently on display, on loan to the museum by Salort-Pons’ stepfather.

On Monday, the group calling itself DIA Staff Action released a statement calling for Salort-Pons “to be removed from his post as director, chief executive officer and all other involvement at the (museum) by August 31st. 2020 ”.

He said a more comprehensive list of requests will be released next week. The Detroit News reached DIA Staff Action by email, but questions posed through the account were not answered on Monday, including information such as how many current and / or former staff it represents. .

The fury comes just four months after residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties voted by wide margins to renew the three-county mileage that supports the museum two years before the current one expires. Mileage provides the museum with approximately $ 25 million per year out of its $ 38 million budget.

Originally from Madrid, Salort-Pons became director in 2015,and has taken a number of steps to increase the diversity of staff and programming. These include new black board members, increased spending on African American art, and prejudice training for all staff and volunteers, according to the museum.

But the recent turnover of a number of black or Latino employees has raised concerns, including the departure of two black assistant curators of contemporary art, Taylor Renee Aldridge and Lucy Mensah, who were hired in 2017 and left the museum in 2018.

Neither responded to requests for comment. Aldridge told The New York Times for an article last week that his experience was “emblematic of so much systemic abuse and violence that permeates museums from top to bottom, and in particular the DIA.”

Of their departure, Salort-Pons said in a note to the Detroit News: “The first step is to diversify your team. But it’s another thing to create an inclusive environment where that team can be successful. I thinks we were unable to create for them an inclusive work environment in which they would be successful. ”

DIA board chairman Eugene A. Gargaro Jr. released a statement on behalf of the board on Monday reaffirming the museum’s commitment to “diversity, equity, inclusion and access ”, and promised to open discussions with current and former staff members.

The setback echoes similar complaints that have swept through museums across the country amid the Black Lives Matter movement – including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, whose leaders have been accused of promoting “a culture of institutional racism ”.

Similar charges have been brought against the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, with more than 60 former staff and interns calling themselves MOCAD Resists signing a letter on July 3 demanding the resignation of Executive Director and Chief Curator Elysia Borowy-Reeder for racial and cultural insensitivity.

This is not the first wave of public dissatisfaction among DIA employees, current or former. a test on medium.com Andrea Montiel de Shuman explained the reasons for her resignation in June from her post as designer of digital experiences at the institution which she still calls “a precious anchor”.

Montiel de Shuman stressed that she loved DIA, but added: “Over the past two years the institution has been reshaped in a form that many of us cannot recognize – it is an environment of contradictory, hostile, sometimes vicious and chaotic work. “, led by” a leadership which has favored a totalitarian and oligarchic system “.

Montiel de Shuman, an immigrant from Mexico, described a culture of racial and cultural insensitivity and a bureaucratic tendency to reject comments from employees of color.

“We must remember and recognize,” she wrote, “that the victims of systematic racism are not just those at gunpoint.”

It was not clear whether Montiel de Shuman was a member of DIA Staff Action or not. Efforts to reach her directly were unsuccessful.

The ethical issue involving the museum concerns the loan of an El Greco painting to the DIA by Salort-Pons’ stepfather Alan M. May, a retired developer in Dallas.

The painting is the work of the 16th century, “Saint Francis receiving the stigmata”.

A whistleblower complaint by current staff members has been filed with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel as well as the Internal Revenue Service alleging a violation of conflict of interest laws.

While loans to museums are commonplace, exhibiting a painting in a leading art museum can increase its value. This makes exhibiting works of art on loan from a family member particularly difficult, experts say.

Salort-Pons defended the loan, saying all proper procedures were followed.

“Private loans to cultivate donations of art from collectors are common practice in American museums,” he said in a written exchange with The Detroit News.

“The DIA can accept loans from museum officials (board members, director and curators) and their families within the restrictions of its policies,” Salort-Pons added.

Sally Yerkovich, a Columbia University scholar who heads the ethics committee of the International Council of Museums, said it was technically possible to accept the loan of a work of art from a family member .

“But it’s risky. It could be done if you cross all your t’s and dot all your i’s,” she said, adding that the relationship should be revealed in advance to the museum and to the entire body. board of directors.

“It’s an appearance of impropriety most of the time,” she added, “when you step out of this closed museum universe, you can run into problems with public perception.”

DIA staff members who raised the issue are represented by the nonprofit Whistleblower Aid of Washington, DC, which also intervened on behalf of the Ukrainian whistleblower in the run-up to President Donald’s impeachment. Trump.

“We think there are two reasons for concern” with the way the El Greco loan was handled, said John N. Tye, CEO of the organization,who added that they spoke with several current and former employees.

“It does not appear that the management of the DIA, in particular the director and the chairman of the board, have followed their own written policies on the disclosure of conflicts of interest,” he said.

The question comes down to whether exhibiting a work like El Greco could increase the resale value of the painting, which could hypothetically benefit the lender.

Tye added that the issue could also involve violations of IRS rules governing charities like the DIA.

“There are quite complicated legal rules regarding ‘private benefits’ and ‘private insurance’ under IRS rules,” he said, “and it is possible that the benefits received by Alan May and the director’s family constitute violations of IRS rules. “

Reached by phone Monday evening, May said, “I don’t do interviews. Please contact me in writing,” but hung up before responding where an email may have been sent.

Salort-Pons said he followed proper procedures to disclose his relationship with May.

“I briefed the chairman of the board,” he wrote, “and followed the professional practice policy and guidelines and the DIA collections management policy, both approved by the DIA Board “.

The museum’s professional practice policy and guidelines, revised in September 2017, note in section II.A.1 that whenever a conflict arises involving “an outside or personal interest of a board member or that of a family member, that interest should be disclosed and be the subject of a record. “

A subsequent section adds that the same constraints apply to the museum director.

“Our policies require disclosure,” Gargaro said, “but allow loans from relatives of officials, whether they are board members or leaders like the director. Salvador brought this loan to my attention, and in addition, lender Alan and I talked about it. “

He added that May made a similar loan in 2010, when the museum exhibited his “An Allegory of Autumn,” which was reportedly painted by acolytes of Nicolas Poussin.

“Salvador was conservative at the time,” Gargaro said, “and pointed out the loan and his relationship with (then DIA director) Graham Beal, and Graham told me about it as chairman. from the administration board.”

In this case, as with El Greco, he added, “We have fully complied with the notice and transparency required by our practice guidelines.”

In a statement released earlier today and signed by Gargaro, the board reiterated its support for Salort-Pons and noted that it had hired an external law firm unrelated to the DIA to conduct a independent review of museum processes. governing loans of works of art.

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